Cancer the Second Time Around

After being treated for triple-negative breast cancer, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer years later.

It has felt strange, I have to admit. The first time I had cancer at 59, it was triple-negative breast cancer. It was aggressive but considered stage 1. And then, 13 years later, I was diagnosed with a separate cancer: ovarian, stage 4.

The fear the words “cancer, stage 1,” created that first time was as real and as solid as if they had said it was stage 4. Because your mind just goes to the endpoint, doesn’t it? I didn’t know it at the time, but my first diagnosis paved my way into accepting the battle of my second diagnosis and taught me some important lessons along the way.

The first time around, I took it all very seriously and went through what were the standard treatments.At the end of the chemo, we added a taxane for “extra credit.” I had discussed with my oncologist recent studies that showed triple-negative breast cancer might need to be treated differently. She took me seriously which I very much appreciated. That’s when I learned that you have to like and trust your oncologist. That first time, I wanted to do everything right, to not have to deal with this again. I’m not sure why, but I think I thought, “Well, that’s my one time with cancer. Thank God I got that over and done.”

It was a defining experience for me, as many cancer diagnoses are. I had been lucky — very, very, lucky. I had been able to work throughout my treatment. The second time around, I was retired, and that was a lot easier.

The time after treatment is always difficult. For a few years, I would go to my six-month or annual checkup and wonder if I would have bad news. Soon it became 10-plus years, and I did not worry about it as much.

Then came the second time around.

While I had not been feeling quite right, I ascribed it to many things; getting older (72), going on a new prescription drug, you name it. The diagnosis was speedy. I had stage 4 ovarian cancer. Yikes. All of a sudden, I was plunged into all the feelings that I had the first time around, but this time there was no mental exit door labeled “stage 1.” Maybe I was also experiencing a form of PTSD, I don’t know. But I got into the “I can do it” mindset that had been so useful the first time around. In addition, my close circle of friends and family became even closer. I called them my Valkyries for their way of wildly riding into the rescue. I got them T-shirts, saying, “Angels? Yeah right, send me some Valkyries.”

It has been over two years since my ovarian cancer diagnosis. I’m now on a PARP inhibitor, a maintenance drug that I hope is a miracle drug.

Every three months I go in for a blood test to see if cancer has returned, reemerged or whatever. I call it my three-month lease.I can’t help but worry, and this fear is always in the background. It comes to the fore in the week or two before the next test. But I try to use up the rest of the time like a normal person. Sometimes that works. I learned the first time around not to delay doing the fun things. I took a trip to Italy; drove to Montana to see my niece’s new baby boy, dove into watercolor.

Maybe I should be grateful for that first experience with cancer. While the shock of the diagnosis the second time around was powerful, I think I’m just a little calmer this time. I know something about the roller coaster I am getting on. I am bracing for a wild ride. Along the way, I know I am going to need help and I’m especially grateful to receive it. Asking for help is never easy, the second time around it is easier.

Now, when I read about people’s experiences, I realize that it can be so much worse than my personal experience. I had an inkling of that when I had stage 1 cancer because I had a weekend where they thought a lung nodule meant that it had metastasized to my lungs, and I had to have a biopsy. It was not a fun weekend waiting for those results. That Saturday and Sunday gave me an insight into what I would be thinking about when faced with a dire diagnosis. A dress rehearsal so to speak, just like what my first cancer diagnosis was for my second.

I think my experiences show you can adapt to bad news. You can learn and you can cope. Things can always be worse. And sometimes, they can be better.

This post was written and submitted by a CURE reader. The article reflects the views the author and not of CURE®. This is also not supposed to be intended as medical advice.

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